Dante expert Shaw (Emeritus, Italian Studies/Univ. Coll. London; editor: Dante: Monarchy, 1996) explains The Divine Comedy so easily and simply, she eliminates all trepidation in anyone daunted by his masterpiece, “the greatest poem of the Middle Ages and perhaps the greatest single work of Western literature.”
To understand Dante Alighieri (1265–1321) the pilgrim, you must first understand Dante the poet. Originally a politician, Dante was exiled from his native Florence in 1302, an event that brought his poetry to maturity. The Divine Comedy was not a theological work but rather a poem by a man exploring his personal and cultural memories on a journey of life. As the author sings the praises of Dante, readers will come to understand the genius of his work. The first vernacular work in the Florentine dialect, Dante’s 100 cantos, more than 14,000 lines of poetry, are in a rhyme scheme of his own invention called terza rima—a series of three line tercets, with the end word of the second line in one tercet supplying the rhyme for the first and third line of the next. It not only generates the next tercet; it makes the poem absolutely tamper-proof. Shaw exposes the profound depth and art of poetry that encompasses so much more than language and rhythm. Dante avoided writing in Latin, as was the custom, in order to appeal to the masses. He did use a little Latin, however, and also invented words in the new and entirely flexible Italian to fit into his rhyme scheme. Shaw also includes a helpful glossary, timeline and an “excursus on metre.”
Read this book to discover Dante the man, the pilgrim and the poet. Then go read his greatest poem. He’s well-worth the exploration, and Shaw is a Virgil-like guide.